Mary Ellen KONIECZNY, Charles C. Camosy, and Tricia C. Bruce, eds. Polarization in the US Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. pp. 196. $19.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-4665-6. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Mercy College of Health Sciences, Des Moines, IA 50309.
This short collection of essays does an excellent job of shining a light on the problem of polarization in the US Catholic Church. One of the earliest points made in the book is that, in our present cultural milieu, we tend to exaggerate the reality of polarization. As Mary Ellen Konieczny points out, “survey research indicates that only between 10 and 20 percent of the American public hold polar positions around most ‘culture wars’ issues. The majority hold more moderate positions” (p. xiii). That being the case, why do so many Catholics feel as if they are living in a polarized church? Konieczny answers this question by drawing upon the work of social theorist Georg Simmel, who has shown that antagonism tends to be more passionate among disputants who belong to the same group (p. xiv). As spiritual siblings, Catholics are arguably more prone to polarization than the American public, because we care so deeply about issues of shared concern.
One of the immediate dangers of not confronting this polarization is that younger Catholics—and, in fact, the Millennial generation, by and large—are less likely to think in polarizing terms than the generations that preceded them (see, e.g., the reflection by Christian Smith, pp. 16-21). In this respect, the church risks alienating large swaths of the Millennial generation if its leaders persist in presenting the faith in polarizing terms. As different contributors to the volume point out, this cautionary word should not be construed as an excuse to water down the Gospel. The truths of the faith are what they are, and the church does its listeners a disservice any time that we compromise doctrinal content in exchange for cultural respectability or a false peace. But, the way that we present those truths does matter, and we should constantly guard against mistaking our particular reception of Catholic doctrine—embedded as it is in a specific historical and cultural location—as magisterial truth.
This point brings me to one of the most vital insights highlighted in the volume: In the US Catholic Church, one of the driving forces behind polarization is that too many Catholics allow their political outlook to shape their theological convictions, rather than having their theological convictions form their political outlook. Or, to state this same point in different terms, too many of us are American first and Catholic second. Over the course of American Catholic history, this temptation has become ever more alluring as Catholics have slowly assimilated to the broader culture. Thus, as Michael Peppard observes, “Catholics are polarized, in part, because we have been so successfully integrated into American culture, for better and worse” (p. 150). Even though the majority of Americans hold more moderate positions, our political discourse is polarized, and Catholics, unfortunately, tend to mimic that polarization.
Here, Catholics might do well to study and internalize the work of Stanley Hauerwas, who has spent much of his career challenging Christians not to conflate their identity as followers of Jesus Christ with their national identity. As Hauerwas bluntly puts it, “the first task of the church is to be itself,” meaning that our commitment to the liberative message proclaimed by Christ must take precedence over any political allegiance that we might adopt within the social imaginary cast by those who presently wield temporal authority (The Hauerwas Reader, p. 113). In short, Catholics should be able to transcend polarization, because we worship a Messiah whose kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Whenever we lose sight of this reality, we risk mutating the kerygma into a this-worldly message determined more by the politics of our day than by the eschatological in-breaking of the Kingdom.
Of course, the alternative to polarization should not be confused with either quietism or “nicey-nice” cooperation (Camosy, pp. 164 ff.). As more than one author in the volume points out, there are times in the life of the church when serious disagreement is not only advisable, but necessary. Ultimately, the key issue is not whether Catholics have disagreements—obviously, we do and we will—but how we go about navigating our disagreements. In the concluding essay of the volume, Charles Camosy points out that a particularly detrimental feature of polarization is that it weakens the possibility for authentic argument. In Camosy’s words: “Disagreement and argument, if it is to be authentic, must be preceded by [robust solidarity]. A polarized relationship precludes authentic disagreement and argument precisely because the potions of one’s opponents are either: (1) dismissed without argument, or (2) caricatured as hopelessly simplistic” (p. 164). One of the primary ways that we witness to the fellowship that we have in Jesus Christ is by not falling into these sorts of traps. To paraphrase a passage of Scripture, we must always be prepared to give a defense of our faith, yet to do so with gentleness and respect—not only when conversing with those who are outside of the church, but also, and just as importantly, when disagreeing with those who are our sisters and brothers in Christ.
The manifest strength of this collection of essays is that it practically embodies the task to which it calls its readers. The various chapters derive from a conference of the same title held at the University of Notre Dame in April 2015, in which participants from across the “left-right political spectrum” sought to map a path forward through the polarization that has increasingly come to characterize American Catholicism. Most of the essays here are quite accessible, so this relatively short volume could be utilized fruitfully in a variety of ecclesial and educational contexts. At the local level, Catholics could perhaps benefit most from this work by organizing parish-based discussion groups that commit to engaging on a weekly basis the various topics addressed by the contributors. These sorts of study groups could go a long way towards helping Catholics to foster the kind of solidarity that this volume challenges us to model as diverse members of a unified ecclesial body.